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Tom Francis

Character/Level Art

John Roberts

Background Art

Fabian van Dommelen

Mission Music

Ryan Ike

Title Music

John Robert Matz

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Francisco Cerda


By Tom Francis. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Art Failure

I put it off for as long as I could, but after a quick prototype for Solo Trenchcoat Triathalon proved inconclusive, I had to put a second character in my game. This meant picking an art style, which was a problem for two reasons. For one, games aren’t art, and I know from contacts in the industry that professional game artists devote a good few hours of every working day to wrestling with this contradiction. And for another, the only acceptable sprite I’d drawn so far – protagonist Mr Conway – has his proportions and body shape completely concealed by an oversized, nebulous trenchcoat.


I am not an art guy. I feel visually dyslexic when I try to draw: I know the right shape when I see it, but I can’t visualise which pixel I need to change to make this deformed mess become that – even when it really is just one pixel. So I really struggle to depict what’s supposed to be going on under that trenchcoat. I have drawn Conway’s head big, monstrously big, a hangover from when he was to be a horrible space robot ineptly disguised as a human. Are his limbs similarly bloated? Can I really draw a head of that size without disguising it beneath a stylish hat? Can I balance a head of that size on a human body? Can I just set my game in a world where it’s considered indecent not to wear a trenchcoat?

All these things are problems because they resulted in this:


An armless, morose John Hodgman who just looks fat, awkward and wrong. Despite general murmurings of support on Twitter for the idea of a nightmarish Being John Hodgman world, I could see this wasn’t going to get good any time soon, so went in a completely different direction:


This would be a complete rethink, requiring a new treatment of the main character (not this douche), and a much more realistically-proportioned look. It might seem like more work, but stuff like this can be done pretty easily from photo reference. In fact, the fewer pixels you have to work with, the more artistry it takes to evoke something with them.

The trouble was Conway. Just as it was hard to extract a convincing human from the murky depths of his coat, it was almost impossible to drape the murky depths of his coat on a convincing human. Several takes ended up looking like Rincewind. And losing the outlines seemed to make every camel hue I picked for him look more and more like some kind of awful beige velour. I got as far as this before declaring it hopeless:


Doing a realistic-shaped guy from photo reference confirmed something I never realised about game art before I tried to butcher some myself: proportions, shape, size, colour, detail and expression are almost completely irrelevant. The thing that defines the feel of a character is pose. That’s why I haven’t been able to get rid of that lame original Conway sprite: everything about it is feeble and misjudged except the fact that he has his hands in his pockets.

Even that was a mistake: I just hadn’t got round to drawing his hands yet. But as soon as I saw it that way, it looked like the character I had in mind. Hodgman failed not because he looked like Hodgman – Hodgman is great – but because he was standing like a mannequin. I eventually solved my art style problem by realising art style doesn’t matter: the most basic possible shape would work fine so long as I could pose the limbs. So I just copy and pasted the original Conway, trimmed him a bit, and I had his first friend:


The relationship lasted as long as it took me to remember that the first character is meant to be an incensed gunman trying to kill you.

One or two people have very kindly offered to lend me their artistic talents. This is appreciated and noted, because if this gets anywhere I will almost certainly ask someone who knows what they’re doing to pretty it up. The reason I’m putting some effort into coming up with the basics myself is not because I expect them to endure, but because I need to decide on a tone. If I’d stuck with those slender realistic characters, the ludicrous super-jumping I’ve got right now might have needed rethinking. Now I know the game is allowed to be a little more cartoony, clean and simple.

Obviously now that there’s more than one person in the game, I’m thinking more specifically about combat. All my ideas for stuff like this have different modules: there’s a basic version I’m definitely going to try, then progressively fancier systems I could stack on top of it if it turns out to be interesting and fun.

That goes for the game itself, too: level 1 doesn’t need a combat system, level 2 doesn’t need a hacking system, level 3 doesn’t need a dialogue system, and none of the adapting plot stuff is relevant till after that. If one thing turns out to be cool enough to focus the game on, I’ll scrap whatever I haven’t made yet. That’s why I’m not worrying too much about the warnings about biting off more than I can chew: I haven’t bitten anything off yet, I’m just scoping it out.

The last thing I did was code the new guy to shoot you dead on sight, and already I’m liking him.


Verde Flash: This is really interesting. Not only the game, but seeing a game journalist (I'm reluctant to say critic or reviewer) making his first game. Intriguing.

Veret: Hodgman (I'm hoping this ends up being the character's real name) is looking good. And now that you have an actual non-betrenchcoated character showing off his proportions, I think you may be able to just make changes to the hair/clothing/pose to create anyone else you want. Or maybe not. I've never tried it.

Conway's actually a lot more believable than you give him credit for, by the way. Sure, in another context you might expect someone who looks like him to hang around elementary school playgrounds wearing nothing under the trenchcoat, but you've clearly presented him as a private eye; in a noir setting he fits right in as a plausible and distinctive main character. So actually, just forget I said anything about playgrounds.

Scypher: > "picking an art style"
> "[but] games aren't art"

I don't mean to be the "That Guy" to pick out select words in the comments, but I have to say I don't think those two statements are related in the least. Rather, I'm not trying to start anything - I just don't understand your logic. Games aren't art, therefore games can't have an art style?

The_B: Scypher, I think you're missing the 'thing' here. He's referring here as to Games aren't Art as a concept rather than games don't have artwork in general within them.

Bret: Jerk Hodgman is now my favorite character in the game.

Sorry, Dick.

Tom Francis: I was just poking fun of Ebert's hopeless over-strict definition of art, where a game's inclusion of player input suddenly renders all its visuals, music, design and writing non-art.

Blaise: He doesn't so much claim that player input renders the individual elements of video-games to be non-art. He claims that the one thing that makes video-games video-games, which is player input, does not produce high art. Those individual elements could just as well be used to make a film, which he says would automatically be more artistic. To claim video-games can be art, you would essentially have to claim that the players are just as much the artists as the designers are, and that they co-create the art - a claim I would most definitely try to make.

Lack_26: I think I prefer the more stylised design, I agree that the super jumping would seem slightly out of place with a more realistic design ethos. That and it allows you to get away with more abstract/stylised game concepts and mechanics without it seeming odd. Having the use of a gun shake the whole world and cause the colour to drain out of it, for example, would seem a lot more in-keeping with this style.

Lack_26: I had some fun reworking the assassin character in photoshop earlier; I think this style is definitely the way to go, the proportions are good to work with (without too many pixels to complicate the work) and it's still fairly flexible in creating the character you want.

Peter: I propose a new rule of the internet. No matter how informative and interesting a post is, comments will always focus on the one reference to something controversial in the opening paragraphs.

The Characters look right , not realistic, but how Id imagine them, trenchcoat, hands in pockets, hat. Basic details exemplified. Im sort of reminded a little of the characters in Blood Money.

Haradan: Blaise: Oh ye gods! I'm fairly certain what Pentadact meant with his reply just now was that he was being ironic (though I missed that on first reading it early this morning as well), but to address your issues: I have three points.

First, just the nature of interactivity and the more direct relation the player has to the game can, I would argue, produce higher art than would be produced through other methods. How can making something more passive in nature make it automatically more artistic?

Second, there are all manner of things you can build in that can use interactivity artistically that would not even be possible in any other medium. Particularly, the ability to construct a complete working system (as part of a game, or as a complete game, or whatever) that anyone can have a copy of and explore freely and fiddle with, contains artistic potential that is found nowhere else.

Third, to make the same thing as you would have in a film, but to make it interactive and let the player tinker with it, you can build in far more art than you would otherwise. With film you can show a guy walk into a room, look around, maybe seeing the expression on his face and hearing some of his thoughts, then see him go to bed. With games you could see all the same stuff but be able to explore his thoughts at will with any presentation that you could possibly imagine. Of course the potential is far larger than this but this way even on its own increases expressiveness even over that of books.

Lack_26: @Tom

Would it be okay I post my alterations to your design, I worked on your themes but added detail and altered the poses. (Yeah, I was bored and this made a nice distraction between working).

EGTF: I started drawing Mr Conway head on instead of in profile to show a point, then I lost focus and forgot the point I was going to make. I ended up with a bunch of butch detective sprites that only resemble Conway in the way of having a coat and hat, all done shakily and hurriedly in paint.

File these under fanart or something - ...rivatedick

Ninja: I must ask, what are you using for your sprites?

I've never used photoshop, but I know that paint is pretty good for making sprites.

Spriting is one of the few game designing aspects I feel I understand and have experience enough with to comment.

I used to make sprites for forum things (usually games that people claimed they would make, but most of the time they never really took off, and were more for looking at cool ideas) and in particular back in the ruby/sapphire age of pokemon I made a few sprites with paint.

I think your second design is better in every way, it's more stylized, easier to animate and edit, and requires less work if you want to make another main character (I don't know if you are going in the direction of making EVERY character important, but it's common video game practice as I'm sure you know to have a number of "standard" models that are just there to add a sense of population to a game.) you won't have to make major edits. If you used the two more realistically proportioned sprites, making main characters might mean you'd have to alter the height significantly to get a feeling of realism, and the proportions would have to be altered to make them seem realistic.

But from a character standpoint, I think the two you have are a great start. Make a female "template" and you'll be good to go as far as character sprites go.

Clay: I would buy (i.e. accept) a Trenchcoat World. You could differentiate characters via colors.

Tom Francis: Lack: Sure, go ahead!

EGTF: Nice. Does he fight crime by day, direct traffic by night?

Ninja: Paint Shop Pro 9. The nineties are back, and they want to know what's wrong with mousewheel zooming.

EGTF: He's nothing much, just another chump in this 8-bit city. Every night he walks these streets, gripped by a baroque fear of what it is he must do. Another scene, another job to do. During the day the simplicity of murder and crime solving, a humble escape from the squallor and filthiness that comes with his night time calling. A calling where he faces the true darkness of human nature.

"Warden, you're late". Boss McCruger, chewing Warden's ass out as usual as he stepped into the office.

"What isn't these days?" Warden growled back, changing from his detective coat to his hi-vis reflective yellow safety vest. The burden it carried was close to a physical weight, the responsibility to help the poor smuchs and brods out there in the night. Holstering his reflective red and green paddles he turned to the chief once more. "What have we got?"

"It's not a pretty sight Warden. Accident on 5th and 43rd, no-one saw how it happened. And the jam it's caused...stomach yourself, it ain't a pretty sight"

"I'm used to ugly sights every time I look in the mirror. It's why you called me after all". He took out a cigar and lit it. The flare of the match revealed for a moment the troubled soul in his eyes, eyes normally shaded from the world by the brim of his traffic cap. "I take the jobs no-one else will touch". Blowing out a pang of bitter smoke, he turned to leave the office.

"Put that out, you're not allowed to smoke on the job Warden".

He paused before exiting the room, taking a stiff drag on his devil's temptation. "Tell that to my ex-wife".

Lack_26: A couple of variations here, the first one is on the far left and the most recent on the right. Tried to go for the contract killer look so added a bit of a trench coat with a raised collar.

With this one, aimed for a more smooth, suited assassin, with a pinstriped suit of course.

Tom Francis: Wow, those are good! Okay, you and EGTF are not allowed to get together and make a game where he writes it and you do the art, because it would be better than mine.

Edited your post to embed the images, hope you don't mind.

The one on the left is very useful - I'd been wondering if shading would work well, and it turns out it does. I have a police lieutenant character planned who I always pictured in a grey trenchcoat - what you've got there is very close.

Second guy reassures me that the cutesiness of the style won't necessarily preclude people who look villainous.


Lack_26: Yeah, I seemed to have got it mixed up in my post, the one on the left is most recent and the right the first one I tried. Also, thanks.

dual_barrel: Looking forward to playing this, already, man!

EthZee: Hm. Strangely, I actually prefer the second, unused design you did for the characters. It's still fairly stylised to an extent, but without going to far as to look 'cartoony', like your current design. I don't know what 'feel' you're trying to get with this game, but the current sprite design gives me an "indie game from the late nineties" vibe. It's the weirdly over-large heads that I'm not fond of.

The shapes and volumes for the taller trench-coat are quite visually pleasing, for me; all you would need to do is perhaps make individual details stand out more.

...This makes me want to do some concepts of my own; but I have my exams in less than a week and I need to revise. Curse you!

EthZee: Ah. I just realised why I liked your second designs. There's a resemblance.

SimonHadSaidHi: it does kinda remind me of Yahtzee Crowshaw's chzo mythos freeware games, but this is more action then his story driven gameplay.

Anyway i assume that you go with the first design if you want it to be a TF2 type action. the only problem is that the other character is a bit bland and requires a bit more designs to make him look more unique. The second design is good too, but it will require more work in order for animations to look cooler, as well as making them awe instilling. if anyone has played iji (the award winning freeware game), it demonstrates the possibility that large sprites can still preform advanced animations and movements.